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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

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Autism Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and More

Autism belongs to a group of developmental disabilities called autism spectrum disorders. The name "spectrum " stems from the fact that these disorders affect each child differently. These disorders involve delays in the development of many basic skills, including the abilities to socialize or form relationships with others and to communicate effectively. Children with autism may also have intellectual disabilities and behavioral challenges.

What Are the Symptoms of Autism?

Symptoms of autism typically appear before a child is 3 years old and last throughout life. Children with autism can display a wide range of symptoms, which can vary in severity from mild to disabling. General symptoms that may be present to some degree in a child with autism include:

  • Difficulty with verbal communication, including problems using and understanding language
  • Inability to participate in a conversation, even when the child has the ability to speak
  • Difficulty with non-verbal communication, such as gestures and facial expressions
  • Difficulty with social interaction, including relating to people and to his or her surroundings
  • Difficulty making friends and preferring to play alone
  • Unusual ways of playing with toys and other objects, such as only lining them up a certain way
  • Difficulty adjusting to changes in routine or familiar surroundings, or an unreasonable insistence on following routines in detail
  • Repetitive body movements, or patterns of behavior, such as hand flapping, spinning, and head banging
  • Preoccupation with unusual objects or parts of objects

People with a form of autism, called autistic savantism, have exceptional skills in specific areas such as music, art, and numbers. People with this form of autism are able to perform these skills without lessons or practice.

What Are the Warning Signs That a Child May Have Autism?

Babies develop at their own pace, some more quickly than others. However, you should consider an evaluation for autism if any of the following apply:

  • Your child does not babble or coo by 12 months of age
  • Your child does not gesture, such as point or wave, by 12 months of age
  • Your child does not say single words by 16 months
  • Your child does not say two-word phrases on his or her own (rather than just repeating what someone else says) by 24 months
  • Your child has lost any language or social skills (at any age)
  • Your child does not establish or maintain eye contact
  • Your child does not make facial expressions or respond to your facial expressions

What Causes Autism?

The exact cause of autism is not known, but research has pointed to several possible factors, including genetics (heredity); metabolic or neurological factors, certain types of infections, and problems occurring at birth.

Recent studies strongly suggest that some people have a genetic predisposition to autism, meaning that a susceptibility to develop the condition may be passed on from parents to children. Researchers are looking for clues about which genes contribute to this increased vulnerability. In some children, environmental factors may also play a role. Studies of people with autism have found abnormalities in several regions of the brain, which suggest that autism results from a disruption of early brain development while still developing in the mother's womb.

Other autism theories suggest:

  • The body's immune system may inappropriately produce antibodies that attack the brains of children, causing autism. This theory is not widely thought of as being valid.
  • Abnormalities in brain structures cause autistic behavior.
  • Children with autism have abnormal timing of the growth of their brains. Early in childhood, the brains of children with autism grow faster and larger than those of normal children. Later, when normal children's brains get bigger and better organized, the brains of kids with autism grow more slowly.

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